Zsa Zsa Gabor’s limo pulled into Havana restaurant’s parking lot with $1 million worth of jewelry in the trunk.
It was after 10:30 p.m., and she and her bodyguard had just come from a jewelry auction in West Palm Beach — and they were hungry.
Havana’s 24-hour walkup window on the corner of Forest Hill Boulevard and South Dixie Highway called to the socialite.
“Do you think it’s safe, dahling?” Gabor asked the restaurant’s original owner, Roberto Reyes, in her lilting Hungarian accent as she air kiss-kissed him and sat for a late-night meal.
It was the restaurant’s first month in business.
Since that day 23 years ago, Havana (“Best Cuban Food in Town,” actually trademarked) has become more than a go-to location for locals. It has quietly become the county’s celebrity stopover for Cuban comfort food.
Sofia Vergara sauntered to the walk-up window with her then-fiancé Joe Manganiello for cafecito in March last year. Martha Stewart is a regular for café con leche when she’s in town. And when Grammy-winning singer James Taylor wanted takeout on Valentine’s Day, he had steak- and roast-pork lechón platters, homemade flan and tres leches delivered to him at Mar-a-Lago.
Dozens of celebrities over the years have gamely signed a Havana take-out menu and later sent a posed picture. (After all, Bonnie Raitt didn’t necessarily want to be caught looking ragged after a day at the beach.)
They’re here for the same thing as the locals: the home-style dishes that can be had any time of day or night.
“If it’s not something I would feed my daughter, I wouldn’t serve it to my customers,” said co-owner Martha Reyes, who took over the business with her husband, Rafael Perez, when her father, Roberto, passed away.
Reyes doesn’t blanche in the celebrity spotlight. After all, she grew up around actors and musicians.
Reyes’ parents were close friends with old-time Cuban variety show stars “Olga y Tony” — Olga Chorens and Tony Alvarez, parents of the Cuban singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name “Lissette” (Alvarez) — in Havana before Castro’s revolution. They fled to the United States and later to Puerto Rico where Reyes’ father, Roberto, went in with the musicians on a Cuban cafe.
This tie to entertainers meant a Latin celebrity was prone to drop in on them throughout the day. It wasn’t odd for Martha Reyes to come home and find the salsero Willy Chirino having Cuban coffee with her father. Or to sit down at the dinner table with telenovela star Frank Moro. Or to find herself tanning at the beach with her mother and Cuban singer/salsa queen Celia Cruz.
“I grew up with these people,” Martha Reyes said. “It was so normal to come home and see … all these famous people.”
Eventually, the Reyeses moved to Miami, where Roberto remained renowned for his home cooking. And it’s where Rafael Perez, in his 20s, fell in love as much with Reyes’ daughter as with his father-in-law’s cuisine.
When 1992’s Hurricane Andrew destroyed their Homestead home — “We lost everything,” Perez said — Perez and the Reyes clan decided to move north and put his father-in-law’s toque skills to work again as head chef of a new Cuban restaurant.
Perez and Reyes wanted to recreate the Miami “ventanita,” the walk-up window where, throughout the day and into the late night, crowds stop in to sober up with Cuban coffee and a pastelito and to talk pop culture and politics. This, they hoped, would become West Palm Beach’s version of the famed politico touchstone Versailles.
They settled on the visible corner of South Dixie Highway and Forest Hill, the site of an original Royal Castle, to build their legacy.
Salsa plays over the outdoor loudspeakers at Havana on an average weekday morning as cars zoom by and morning zombies line up to reanimate with Cuban coffee.
A West Palm Beach cop leans in and flirts in “Spanglish” with the dark-haired window waitress and orders a guava pastelito and cafe con leche instead of a doughnut and coffee.
It’s this casual, always-welcoming vibe that locals love and which calls to the stars.
Many may play a gig locally at the Kravis Center and find their way, word of mouth, down Dixie Highway to Havana’s ventanita.
Celebrity chef Alton Brown asks his Twitter followers to recommend restaurants when he’s in town. And a few hours after his Kravis show last year, he tweeted a picture of himself with a cafe con leche and a Cuban sandwich outside the Havana window.
That backdrop has become a common one.
Martha Reyes keeps separate running lists of the celebrities who have stopped by over the years, one of the Spanish-language stars like her parents grew up with and another of Hollywood elite.
Sure, there’s Gloria Estefan and Sabando Gigante’s Don Francisco. But there are also musicians of all influences (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Toby Keith), actors and actresses of varying generations (Paul Newman, Cameron Diaz, Andy Garcia), politicians (such as neighbor Donald Trump) and comedians (Kathy Griffin, Kevin James, Damon Wayans).
The names, and signed Havana menus, could fill a wall. (And they will, as part of a $250,000 renovation to make Havana pop on Dixie Highway). The celebs who dined discreetly in a private upstairs room could fill another.
And they are all drawn by a reputation for down-home Cuban food and the little window where they can be as public or private as they like.
“This has been amazing. A blessing,” Reyes said, “but my loyal, everyday customers, that’s who you have to take care of.”
Just some of the big names who have walked up to the window at Havana restaurant